Talk radio, which forfeited whatever cool it had in the '90s to the Internet, is reclaiming its buzz. Rush Limbaugh has made headlines by nominating himself to host Monday Night Football. He auditioned for the job, and ABC is treating him as a serious candidate. Meanwhile, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the Ma Barker of radio therapists, is warring with gay activists over her planned TV show, Schlessinger. Enraged that Dr. Laura calls homosexuality "deviant" and a "biological error," gays have persuaded advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, Xerox, and Toysrus.com to sever ties to her. A board of Canadian broadcast censors just sanctioned her for anti-gay bigotry as well. The upheaval is flustering Paramount, Schlessinger's network, and may be jeopardizing the show's September launch.
This hiccup of talk radio news is a reminder that radio gab is not merely alive, but healthy. Radio revenue is soaring. Talk radio may not be the ground zero of GOP activism, as it was in 1994, and Limbaugh is no longer, as William Bennett once claimed, the "most consequential person in public life," but Limbaugh attracts as many listeners as he did at the height of his fame, at least 14.5 million per week, according to Talkers magazine. (He is still the leading radio talker in the United States.) Limbaugh has become Republican establishment radio, and he retains enormous influence in GOP politics. His carpet-bombing of John McCain as a closet liberal—an assault unremarked on by the mainstream media—is widely credited with ensuring George W. Bush's South Carolina primary victory. Dr. Laura draws 14.25 million listeners per week, placing her a close second to Rush.
Those who don't pay attention to Rush and Dr. Laura—that is, most Americans—tend to lump them together. That conflation is understandable, because they seem the Ozzie and Harriet of conservative radio. Rush takes care of the right-wing politics (down with Hillary, etc.), while Dr. Laura supervises the conservative home (no divorce, no premarital sex, shut up and listen to me, you idiot). Their shows are similar in format: Both talk virtually nonstop for three hours, use their callers as foils, and never have guests. Both are bombastic. And both are most appealing for their absolute certitude. They allow no gray to creep into their black-and-white worlds. Nothing shakes their conviction that right is right and that left is evil.
But there is a critical difference that separates Dr. Laura and Rush, the reason why his TV venture will succeed and hers won't: He's a professional, and she's not.
Limbaugh's critics have been flaying him for his Monday Night Football ambitions: He has never broadcast sports, they say. He is detested by too many people—dittoheads are a tiny minority. He couldn't keep his politics off the gridiron. (Imagine what would happen if President Clinton showed up at a Redskins game!)
Such skepticism underestimates Limbaugh. When he first emerged, liberals pegged him as the next Morton Downey Jr., a loony who would self-destruct on-air. But Limbaugh has grown more acceptable with age, largely because he has always paid attention to the "real goals of radio: ratings and revenue," says Talkers Editor Michael Harrison. Limbaugh has smoothed his rough edges. He has all-but-dropped the term "feminazi." When he was lambasted for mocking AIDS victims, he quickly apologized. He stopped performing "caller abortions." Other political talk radio shows stumble because their hosts put the politics before radio (see sclerotic Bob Grant). But Limbaugh never makes that mistake. He is a genuine conservative, but "he is a political entertainer and a consummate pro," says John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, who helped write Limbaugh's first book. "Don't forget he was a DJ."
Limbaugh the vaudevillian—not Limbaugh the winger—could be a delight in the Monday Night Football booth. Even people who can't stand his politics concede that he's a wonderful, funny talker. Limbaugh would play Howard Cosell. He would talk big and loud and use his bombast—most of which is a put-on—to generate the controversy and vim absent from football now. (Why would Rush succeed on Monday Night Football when he bombed as a TV talk show host several years ago? Rush is not telegenic, and he proved himself a poor TV interviewer. But the football broadcast, unlike his old TV show, would essentially be a radio gig: Rush would be off-camera for 99 percent of the broadcast, and he would be riffing, not interviewing.)
W here Limbaugh smirks, Schlessinger glowers, and that may be her downfall. She has proved strangely impervious to the criticism that should have ruined her, that she's a hypocrite. (Click for why.) But Dr. Laura does have an Achilles' heel: her conviction. She considers herself a savior, not an entertainer. The longer Limbaugh is on the air, the softer he becomes. The longer Schlessinger is on the air, the harder she becomes. Limbaugh's bombast is an act; Schlessinger's is real. She has no doubt and no sense of humor. "I am a prophet," she says. "I am a philosopher." She knows how everyone else should live.
Popularity has made her arrogant. Three years ago, Dr. Laura made at least the pretense of listening to the people who phoned in. Today she berates them before they finish a sentence. Her idea of constructive criticism is a frying pan in the head—you're a bad parent, you're a liar, you're a coward. (Dr. Laura used to be refreshing because she offered advice that few others did—don't divorce, don't have sex, etc. As the culture has gotten more conservative—thanks, in part, to Dr. Laura—she sounds just like everyone else, only nastier.)
Dr. Laura's acid enemas work on the radio, a medium that has always been hospitable to ranters. But that style will bomb in the winking, shrugging medium of television. Television abhors a moralizer. Almost no one sits in judgment on television, except for the occasional judge. Jerry Springer may hector the clowns and morons on his show, but that is jokey spectacle. The only TV figures who are as serious and certain as Dr. Laura are TV preachers—chiefly Pat Robertson. But Robertson speaks softly and smiles wide. Schlessinger, with her taut face and sharp teeth, looks vicious.